Being Wrong

It gives me hope when people can admit they were wrong. There’s something redeeming about admitting that one’s judgment is fallible rather than refusing to admit error for the sake of ego.

As an example, this clip from Errol Morris’ film “The Fog of War” features Robert McNamara discussing the events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In it, McNamara revealed that the U.S. likely misread sonar signals that supposedly indicated an increase in Vietnamese aggression. This misinterpretation helped escalate the war, causing irreparable harm to many. The key exchange:

McNamara: “We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs. We see incorrectly, or we see only half of the story at times.”

Errol Morris: “We see what we want to believe.”

McNamara: “You’re absolutely right. Belief and seeing, they’re both often wrong.”


People make mistakes all the time. That’s what imperfect creatures with imperfect senses and intelligence are born to do. Not being able to admit that is a sign of a delusional mind.

8 thoughts on “Being Wrong

  1. One thing to note, Patrick, is that in this age of automation, statistics and artificial intelligence “being wrong” is often built in to any decision. Being wrong a certain % is okay, go over that % and there might be trouble, but the % itself is often flexible. At this moment that Volkswagen cheated on its emission figures is in the news. The emission is much higher than VW tests had stated it was. On TV those who know said they had known for years the real emissions were quite a bit higher than those shown in tests, so presumably the authorities knew and did nothing. One expert had measured the difference between tested emissions and real emissions (what your car does on the road) at 18% several years ago. He had even published his findings. So being wrong 18% is acceptable. The problem came only when it was shown that VW was deliberately hiding the now-known fact that the difference is actuallyy 40%. Being wrong 40% is not okay.

    Look at any of the political polls on anything and at the bottom is an ‘error margin’. It might be 5%. So being wrong 5% is okay. Most academic and medical research has a similar margin that might be much higher than 5%. Of course, this is stated, so it is very different to falsification. But it is tacitly a statement that something might be 70% right (i.e. 30% wrong).

    Democracy works on the 50%+1 principle. 51% and something is ‘right’.

    With smart bombs and drones unintended fatalities are also built in. A low % of innocents killed to get one guilty person is considered acceptable. In traditional battles there is an ‘acceptable’ number of one’s own troops killed by the ridiculously named ‘friendly fire’. % change depending on the importance of the objective. It is generally not okay to kill everybody in a village on the assumption that at least one must be a terrorist, but what is an acceptable %?

    We live in a culture of acceptable wrongs. Owning up to acceptable wrongs is okay. But the flexibility of the line is often set by those who might or might not own up.

  2. yeah, Morris said that Rumsfeld looked really bad, that the interviews showed every terrible thing he wanted to show, but that Rumsfeld, apparently a real socio/psychopath, didn’t seem to realize it . . .

  3. stop worrying about the other 40%, the undecided side of every argument is in danger of being forgotten and never addressed. It’s close to my heart: when we choose the advantage of a deterrent, we tend to stop worrying about the effect of the actual punishment for those who aren’t deterred . . .

  4. Pingback: Being Wrong, Part 2 | Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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